More than 20 people are seated at tables under a lighted canopy, eating dinner, chatting with one another and smiling as cars drive by on Riverside Avenue and 24th Street.
The sturdy paper plates are piled high on this night with fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, salad and green beans — all homemade. Cookies, pastries, cake
“It’s a plate of love,” said Gail McNichols, president of Paso Cares. “It’s pure service. We have a variety of foods. They all love it. We have a smorgasbord.”
It’s a scene that repeats itself Monday through Friday evening at the Paso Cares managed Peoples’ Kitchen.
The buffet-style dinner begins promptly at 5 p.m. with the ringing of the triangle dinner bell and is served until 6 p.m. People — some on bicycles, some on foot and some in cars filled with their belongings — begin gathering outside of the Paso Cares’ shipping container at about 4:30 p.m.
Paso Cares is a nonprofit with an eight-member board and hundreds of volunteers, McNichols said. Ed Gallagher is the current board president.
Their goal according to the Paso Cares website is to provide “for the needs of the homeless population of our community. We are volunteers who together share a vision of providing food, clothing, and shelter for our fellow citizens in need. We are leaders willing to stand hand in hand to make sure the needs of each individual are met.”
Paso Cares formed eight years ago during the winter providing a warming shelter for the homeless for five months. They also provided a meal during that time.
About a year ago, Paso Cares took a leap and began serving a meal year-round.
Dinner is served Monday through Friday at the Peoples’ Kitchen by Paso Cares. Two churches both on Oak Street serve meals on the weekends. On Saturday, a dinner meal is served at St. James Episcopal Church and on Sunday dinner is served by the United Methodist Church.
Food for the meals is provided mostly by North County churches, but there are several groups and individuals that also prepare dishes.
“We basically have a group that has every night of the week covered,” McNichols said. “It’s not just the faith-based community that is helping. It is our entire community that is helping.”
McNichols and the other regular volunteers greet everyone by their first name and ask how they are doing.
“We have found that when we develop trust people will open up and we can get services to them and maybe they will make some changes in their lives.,” McNichols said. “It also gives us the chance to know people so that we know when they are going to the warming shelter if they are going to be stable enough to be OK there.”
For many of the people eating dinner or using the shelter, it is the only positive interaction they have all day.
“We are in most cases the only family these people have,” McNichols said. “The homeless population is a very ill population — mental illness, addiction. We have a very stationary population. We see and have seen the same people over and over for years.”
During the 23 days of operation in October, the Peoples’ Kitchen served 700 meals to 557 people, McNichols said.
The warming shelter is operated Nov. 1 to March 31, contingent on the weather. When the overnight temperature is expected to dip below 40 degrees Fahrenheit or if there is a 50 percent chance of rain in the forecast, Paso Cares opens the warming shelter for the night.
Area churches are used for the warming shelters, rotating nightly and are limited to only 12-15 people per night. Each person receives a sleeping bag and a matt and screened by Paso Cares before they are transported to the location to spend the night.
“We try to leave it cleaner than we found it,” McNichols said.
Paso Cares within the last six months also started offering a laundry service to the homeless.
They also try to connect people to the limited county, state and federal services offered in the North County.
Services are not readily available here, but McNichols is hopeful more are coming to provide help for a growing population.
According to the 2017 county point-in-time survey, there are 253 homeless in the North County — 97 in Paso Robles. In all, 20 percent of the county’s homeless live north of the Cuesta Grade. The census is conducted every two years.
McNichols knows those numbers are not accurate.
“We need an accurate count,” she said. “We know there are more people out there
An accurate count would go a long way to helping determine what services are needed.
Transitions-Mental Health Association opened an office on Riverside Avenue in Paso Robles within the last year.
Paso Robles and many other cities in San Luis Obispo County recently declared a homeless shelter crisis.
The declaration means Paso Robles can apply for funding through California’s Homeless Emergency Aid Program (HEAP).
SLO County is in line to receive nearly $5 million in HEAP money. The money is to be used for homeless services and prevention, criminal justice diversion and mental health needs.
McNichols sees these as positive steps as it could lead to Paso Cares ultimate dream of seeing a brick and mortar homeless shelter in Paso Robles. Currently, the only homeless shelter is in Atascadero, operated by the El Camino Homeless Organization.
“We definitely, need an indoor building in Paso Robles,” McNichols said. “We are doing the best we can under the circumstances with our limited resources.”
Paso Cares is always accepting donations and in need of volunteers. To learn more, visit pasocares.org or call 805-712-4710.
“The need is so great, there is so much to do,” added McNichols.